Film Review: The Empty HoursExtremely leisurely but never dull, this sensitively made film is filled with a radiant performance from Venezuelan actress Adriana Paz.
A slight anecdote expanded to slightly beyond its natural length, The Empty Hours is nevertheless time well spent. Set in Mexico's Veracruz, this poignantly comic tale gets new mileage out of the younger-man-meets-older-woman theme, and the whole thing is infused with a delicacy that makes it easy to forgive its occasional slipup.
Aarón Fernández’s film is based on the unlikely initial premise that 17-year-old Sebastián (Kristyan Ferrer) is left in charge of his uncle's motel rooms, which basically function as a rendezvous for cheating couples. Two such clients are real estate seller Miranda (Adriana Paz) and her married lover.
Sebastián's empty hours in his new position are spent cleaning Kleenex-strewn beds, hanging out with a local coconut seller, looking to find a maid. His dead time is accurately, meaning dully, rendered. But ever so slowly, the outgoing, bouncy and ever-optimistic Miranda and the shy, timid Sebastián get to know each other during her lengthy waits for her lover's arrivals. Their quirky little exchanges, imbued with unconscious humor, are among the film's high points, and like the film as a whole are charming without ever being merely cute.
Given the nature of his work, Sebastián's hormones are active and the scene has indeed been set for a relationship between them—but as it plays out it's a wonderfully drawn relationship, less about sex than about their mutual insecurities, of which their empty hours have made the two characters painfully aware. The pace and interest pick up well through the film's second half, though Fernández continues to hold the camera on sometimes unnecessary shots for a beat or two too long.
Ferrer gives a flat, over-muted performance as a character whose emotional journey is already way too familiar, but the damage is limited, first because he's playing an awkward character anyway, and second because Paz has enough vigor for both of them. Bright, sexy and fun, she nevertheless suggests a hidden sorrow when she claims to Sebastián that she's a free spirit who has chosen to be a lover rather than a wife. Her melancholy comes increasingly to the fore as the film continues, making Miranda a memorably complex figure. But, at least in the original Spanish, the pacing and dynamics of scenes in which Paz doesn't appear are sometimes clunky.
The storm-battered location, with its rundown appearance and waving palm trees, conveys both sensuousness and an appropriately isolated air. Fernández's script is good on the little details that make matters plausible—the motel garage spaces, for example, have pull-across curtains so that clients’ cars cannot be recognized from the highway. Camilo Froideval's score is simple, guitar-based fare with a hint of melancholy that fits in well with the general mood. The beat-up Volkswagen that Miranda drives has so much charm that it's almost like an extra character.
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